The World Needs More Than Good Intentions

Praying and meditating won’t stop violence, environmental disasters, or inequality. Our spiritual path needs to become one of action.

When it comes to solving the world’s problems, spiritual wisdom can unfortunately offer some confusing messages. Consider the phrase: The world is your mirror. Taken at face value I can only conclude that a large portion of myself is intolerant, violent, fearful, racist, selfish, greedy, and polluting. If you’re seeing the world I am seeing, then perhaps this is you too…

This is not entirely true of course—well, I hope not… Rather, the teaching is this: If we want to change how we see the world, we have to change what’s in our minds. The promise is that if we work on ourselves through meditation or whatever means resonates, we will be able to look upon all the problems of the world with a calmness and acceptance. Indeed it is this search for inner peace that entices hundreds of millions of us to follow a spiritual path.

But here is the rub—and I know I’m not alone—I have spent the last 15 years working on my inner self, and, yes, I am happier, and calmer. I have more love, and less fear. But, in spite of the increased inner work, the world seems to be experiencing greater violence, more pollution, and an increasing gap between the rich and poor. Something about this reflection doesn’t quite add up.

My heart seems to be telling me that this spiritual approach is not going to be enough. The big issues are just too big.

Enter confusing and somewhat contradictory spiritual teaching number two: We live in a world of duality.

Indeed whether it’s yoga philosophy, New Age wisdom, mystical teachings, Buddhism, Islam, Christianity, or Judaism, we are told that the very nature of this world is suffering. It is one of ups and downs, and perceived ‘goods’ and ‘bads.’ So all that inner work is great in helping us to cope with this realization, but the reflection is never going to change, so don’t even try. Is that the truth here? Some teachings even refer to the world as an illusion. Why get caught up in the world when it’s not even real? Rather, our time would be better spent accepting that the world is how it is, and aiming to transcend it by attaining enlightenment.

Intellectually I understand these points, but my heart has never really agreed that I should sit back on my cushion and watch while the world goes to hell in a handbasket. So instead I have played my small part—volunteering in my community, composting, donating—and for the big issues? Well, I largely rely on prayer, and meditating on world peace.

But lately, my heart seems to be telling me that this spiritual approach is not going to be enough. The big issues are just too big. And spiritual leaders, among many others, seem to be saying the same thing.

Take Pope Francis. There’s a man you would lay odds on is relying on prayer, but instead he has become one of the world’s most active defenders of the environment. His June encyclical was tweeted by world leaders as it laid out in no uncertain terms why the world needs to come up with actions to respond to climate change and save the planet. This week at the Paris Climate Conference the pontiff not only sent his shoes to represent him at the cancelled march, but in his speech he further called the world to action:

“Every year the problems are getting worse… We are at the limits. If I may use a strong word I would say that we are at the limits of suicide.”

With regards to terrorism, last month following the Paris attacks, the Dalai Lama also made the unusual statement that prayer was not going to be enough. Speaking to a German newspaper, the 80-year-old spiritual leader said:

“I am a Buddhist and I believe in praying. But humans have created this problem, and now we are asking God to solve it. It is illogical. God would say, solve it yourself because you created it in the first place.”

Rather, the Dalai Lama said that what is required is to stop expecting help from God, Buddha, or governments, and instead start working for peace. He said that if we are to “foster humanistic values, of oneness and harmony” then what is called for is not a spiritual approach, but rather “a systematic approach.”

Several politicians have also emphasized this point this week following the mass shooting in San Bernardino—proclaiming that prayers for the victims of shootings, as compassionate as those may be, do not stop gun violence—only a change in legislation can do that.

There seems to be a global call to action happening. Renowned spiritual teacher Marianne Williamson ran to be a politician in California, and urges that it’s time for the spiritual community to get involved in structural change. Because yes, we can all feel better about the state of the world after an hour on our cushion chanting, but it won’t close the hole in the ozone layer, or solve a refugee crisis.

David Loy, a zen teacher, lays out in his article in Lion’s Roar why we, as a spiritual community, need to become more proactive. This means shifting our sole focus from escaping the world, to becoming a bodhisattva. Bodhisattvas delay their nirvana because they wish to save others from their suffering. It is compassion in action. It’s Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Thich Nhat Hanh. And this proactivity could well be the path that that leads us to nirvana anyway.

Being detached from the state of the world, David says, is a confusing and misunderstood spiritual teaching that leads to inaction. Bodhisattvas are unattached to the fruits of their actions, but they are engaged in the world:

“This non-attachment is essential in the face of the inevitable setbacks and frustrations that activism involves, but it does not mean that one is unconcerned about the results of one’s efforts.”

Essentially, let’s work out how we can best help, with the intention of changing the reflection of the world in the mirror—but not being disheartened if it stays the same.

“Given the urgency of the ecological and social challenges that face us today, are we not all called upon to become bodhisattvas?” asks David. And indeed, why wouldn’t we want to help one another in the best way possible? One less confusing pearl of spiritual wisdom is that we are all interconnected. And perhaps the ‘best way’ to help, in this age, may entail setting aside the cushion for a moment, to take a more proactive stance.

How we are each called to action will be different and unique to our journey, and skills, but for what it’s worth, here is some sage advice from my own teachers.

1. Work on yourself.

It’s true that the only way we can really be of service is if we have a calm mind and a loving heart. Whatever it takes to get there is what we do.

2. Continue to pray and meditate.

As far as I am aware there are no studies that show complaining producing positive results. But there is plenty of research that points to prayer and meditation as being beneficial for both the individual taking part and those around them.

3. Find your unique skill.

We cannot solve all of the world’s problems. But there are plenty of people with the right skills who collectively can. We are one of them and we need to find our skill. This is not to be confused with our gift. We may be a great artist, but we may also be rightly placed to do work towards conserving the oceans, too. For example, this yoga teacher is making a difference by developing machines to manufacture sanitary pads for women in refugee camps.

4. Be proactive—not random—with kindness.

Why do acts of kindness need to be random? We can plan acts of kindness targeted to where it is most needed. There are some great ideas in this blog, such as sending flowers to people who may be suffering. If we listen to our intuition, we will know how best to serve through kindness.

5. Work on yourself.

Yes, it’s this one again. We cannot give if we are depleted. When we feel overwhelmed, overworked, or overstretched in our giving, it’s time to take a break and go back to working on ourselves. What lessons can we learn? After all, the world doesn’t need martyrs, it needs bodhisattvas.


Helen Avery is a Section Editor at Wanderlust Media, working on the Vitality and Wisdom on She is a journalist, writer, yoga teacher, and full-time dog walker of Millie.